Fun is great, it gets people involved, they enjoy what they are doing and want to continue doing it. However, like the video above, you can only have so much of "so much fun". The problem with attaching purposeful games to "fun" is that it leaves you open to attacks like this. Postman essentially states that our obsession with entertainment is destroying rational thought and critical thinking in our society; the "killer-app"of his argument is television news. It is really hard to argue against him on that point. However, when I read Amusing Ourselves to Death, a long time ago, there was something that did not sit well with me. The "fun" described in the book was very different from the "fun" I was having playing Starcraft at the time. The amusement that Postman was referring to was passive entertainment but by championing purposeful games that try to make everything fun aren't we doing the same thing?
The answer is a resounding: It depends! There is some evidence that Postman's arguments can be applied to gamification. For instance, the reading encouragement programs in schools (like the BookIT program) are complete failures. In these programs, kids get points for reading books and can redeem these points for free pizza. It was found that kids in these programs were reading more, but were less likely to understand what they read and had changed their reading habits towards shorter and less substantial material.
On the other end of the argument is Jane McGonigal and her full-throated defense of how games can make the world better. For instance, she mentions a game called World Without Oil which was, essentially, an online game of Dungeons and Dragons where the players pretended to be in a "World Without Oil" and then blogged about their experience. Other players could help them along and provide solutions to the problems that they faced. In short, for 32 days they had to actively think about how they were living in a World Without Oil. This helped people to actually care about this issue rather than just "raise awareness" about the issue.
So is fun a problem? It depends on how we define fun. Most detractors of purposeful games think that fun is this:
Comfortable and easy. It ensures that nothing is wrong and everything is going to be fine. Most purposeful game champions think fun is this:
Complex, engaging, and challenging.
What is funny is that as managers and consultants are using the word "fun", while video games developers are turning their backs on fun. There are embracing the word "engaging". The same issues that Postman has about people being non-critical thinkers is also annoying developers about the current crop of gamers.
Here is an article about a game designer who thinks that current games are "ruining" a generation of gamers. By "ruining" he means that modern games are making their players worse gamers. How is this possible? In short, he mentions that skill is no longer needed to play certain games and so when these gamers are given a challenge, they balk at it. Fun, the comfortable couch kind, is actually limiting video games! The folks at Extra Credit put it best.
So from an entertainment point of view, Extra Credit comes up with some pretty interesting ways to create engagement. However a group of researchers have gone further and identified the psychological needs that video games can fulfill that are beyond fun: autonomy, presence and perceived competence. An engaging game will put us in a world where we can do what we want, and feel immersed in that world but will also challenge us and give us a sense that we are performing better as we play.
So for purposeful games to work they will have to encourage the behaviour that we want (not more books read, but books read well) and also be engaging. Not fun. Because sometimes amusement is not appropriate.